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Taiwan’s new leader William Lai takes the helm, and a tougher line

Taiwan’s new leader William Lai takes the helm, and a tougher line
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Lai’s inauguration marks an unprecedented third term for the DPP. However, unlike Tsai when she became president in 2016, Lai made no mention of the 1992 consensus in his address.

The consensus is a tacit agreement between Beijing and Taipei that there is one China but each side of the Taiwan Strait can have its own interpretation of what constitutes “China”.

Lai instead said Beijing had to “face the reality of the Republic of China’s existence” – using Taiwan’s official name – while “the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China are not subordinate to each other”.

“All of the people of Taiwan must come together to safeguard our nation; all our political parties ought to oppose annexation and protect sovereignty; and no one should entertain the idea of giving up our national sovereignty in exchange for political power,” Lai said.

He also called on Beijing to “cease their political and military intimidation against Taiwan, share with Taiwan the global responsibility of maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait as well as the greater region, and ensure the world is free from the fear of war”.

However, Lai said he would strive to maintain the status quo of the strait and called for a resumption of tourism and student exchanges.

As his swearing-in began at the presidential office in Taipei, Beijing’s Ministry of Commerce added three US companies to its “unreliable entities” list for their involvement in arms sales to Taiwan: Boeing Defence, Space & Security, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, and General Dynamics Land Systems.

Hours after the inauguration ceremony, Beijing responded with a strongly worded statement.

Taiwan Affairs Office spokesman Chen Binhua said Lai’s speech “stubbornly adheres to the stance of ‘Taiwan independence’, vigorously promotes the fallacy of separatism, incites cross-strait confrontation, and attempts to ‘rely on external forces to seek independence’”.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi also responded, saying “the trend of China’s reunification is irreversible”.

President William Lai waves to the crowd during the inauguration ceremony. Photo: EPA-EFE

But so far the People’s Liberation Army has been unusually quiet, with no reports from the island’s defence ministry of PLA aircraft crossing the Taiwan Strait’s median line as of 7pm on Monday. PLA activities near the island were also kept at a low level the day before the speech, with the ministry reporting six aircraft and seven vessels near Taiwan on Sunday.

Chinese military commentator Song Zhongping said he was not surprised by Lai’s speech but the remarks could increase “military risks” in the strait.

He expected Beijing to continue to listen to Lai and “observe his behaviour” to decide how to respond.

In his speech, Lai also highlighted Taiwan’s significance in regional security and global economic security as he sought to rally international support for the self-ruled island.

“The future of cross-strait relations will have a decisive impact on the world. This means that we, who have inherited a democratic Taiwan, are pilots for peace,” he said.

“Taiwan is strategically positioned in the first island chain, and what affects us here affects global geopolitical development,” he said, referring to a US Cold War strategy to contain the Soviet Union and China with a military presence in the western Pacific.

Lai also noted Taiwan’s key role in semiconductor production, saying “the future we decide is not just the future of our nation, but the future of the world”.

Danny Russel, vice-president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, said while Beijing may “turn a deaf ear to Lai’s call for the two sides to pursue dialogue, exchange and cooperation, his attempts to strike a conciliatory tone should be reassuring to foreign governments worried by his past reputation as a ‘pragmatic worker for independence’”.

But while Lai’s pledge to maintain the status quo means “restraint and the responsible management of cross-strait relations” to the West, “for Beijing, it means continuing an unacceptable drift towards Taiwan independence and away from unification”, he said, adding that it was certain to “fall flat with Beijing”.

In line with tradition, Washington sent the chairwoman of the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto US embassy in Taipei, Laura Rosenberger, to attend the ceremony, along with a group of bipartisan former officials.

They included Brian Deese, US President Joe Biden’s former top economic adviser, and Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state under former president George W. Bush.

Former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo – who was placed on China’s sanctions list over disputes during the Donald Trump era – was also present, but was not part of the delegation.

In a congratulatory message, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the partnership between the American and Taiwanese people was “rooted in democratic values” and “continues to broaden and deepen across trade, economic, cultural and people-to-people ties”.

“We look forward to working with President Lai and across Taiwan’s political spectrum to advance our shared interests and values, deepen our long-standing unofficial relationship, and maintain peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” he said.

Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi expressed hope for deepening friendship with the island. In a statement, he emphasised that Taiwan was a “very important partner and friend” of Japan, highlighting their shared values, close economic ties and exchanges.

But Lai’s administration will likely face mounting pressure domestically, including divisions in the legislature and a range of socioeconomic issues.

With the DPP losing absolute majority in the parliament, legislation will face tougher challenges from main opposition party the Kuomintang and the emerging centre-left Taiwan People’s Party.

Lai acknowledged this in his speech, saying it was “a result of the people’s choice” and would force parties to “share their ideas and undertake the nation’s challenges as one”.

He also pledged to address issues ranging from stagnant wages to pensions, as well as renewable energy.

His speech also drew criticism from the office of former president Ma Ying-jeou, of the KMT, which hit out at Lai for asserting “Taiwan as the name of the country” and “viewing the People’s Republic of China as a foreign country”.

“[This is] completely disregarding the Act Governing Relations between the People of the Taiwan Area and Mainland Area,” said Hsiao Hsu-tsen, executive director of the Ma Ying-jeou Foundation. “This is a blatant provocation and a violation of the constitution of the Republic of China.”

He said Lai’s “direct and explicit stance is tantamount to leaning towards Taiwan independence, leading to an unprecedentedly dangerous situation between the two sides of the strait”.

Hsiao said that the island’s constitution stated that mainland China and Taiwan belonged to one China and were “not two separate countries”.

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